Europe – July 2017

Day 9 – Catacombs and Eiffel Tower

Sunday 6th August

We made a conscious decision to not try to cram as much as possible in today and not to worry about getting up and out very early. This resulted in an absolutely terrific slow start with no rushing around. To be honest, this has been the break from the fast pace we’ve kept up over the last few days that we’ve all been needing.

Once I shifted myself into gear, I wandered over to the local bakery to pick up some more croissants and a French bread. Being a Sunday, I was half expecting everything to be closed but there were people walking about clutching French bread, which was promising. Not only was the supermarket open but the bakery was open as well, which was a nice bonus. One of the side streets here was also cordoned off and it looked like a market was in full swing. Had we more time to play with, we might have explored this some more but I was on a mission this morning and wasn’t going to be distracted.

Along with the remaining bacon and eggs we still had, my French bread and croissants from the bakery formed another lovely cooked breakfast that everyone enjoyed. The apartment here is outfitted with a very nice, modern, induction hob cooker. It’s great but it does mean that the induction frying pans tend to have everything stick to them, as they don’t have any non-stick coating. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t cook anything with them that didn’t get entirely stuck to the point that I had to use a metal spatula to forcibly manhandle everything out of the pan and onto the plates. Although we all had egg and bacon, a more accurate description would have been dozens of broken bits of egg and bacon all heaved onto a pile. Nobody complained.

Another chore Sandy set herself to this morning was the washing. Since we’re effectively living out of the suitcases, the places sort of looks like…well to be honest, it sort of looks like our place back home normally looks…with stuff everywhere. It effectively being washing day today, there was a lot more stuff piled up all over the place than usual. It’s actually strangely comforting. I chipped in by helping to fold everything I found piled onto the dining room table. I was actually fairly indiscriminate with which pile I placed each folded garment onto so I’m not really sure if I was a help or hindrance. Sandy didn’t complain. She was too busy sorting the clothes into the right piles.

Paris once again beckoned to us this morning with absolutely picture perfect weather conditions. For today, we had decided to do the Catacombs and to go up the Eiffel Tower. Jennifer announced she didn’t want to go up the tower and Joey announced he didn’t want to go down into the catacombs. Our parenting skills were clearly going to be put to the test today.

We moseyed out of the house at a very lazy 11:45 a.m. We were well rested and organised and with no pressing need to be anywhere at any specific time. It’s a great feeling to be able to take things at such a relaxing pace.

I ordered an Uber to the Catacombs, since this was closer than the Eiffel Tower and it would work out cheaper to do things in that order. Our driver met us at the front gate about four minutes later. Since arriving here in Paris, I have fallen in love with Uber. I don’t think it’s any more or less expensive than a taxi and you can’t beat the convenience. Malakoff isn’t in the thick of things so it isn’t always easy to find a taxi where we are but there’s always an Uber just minutes away at any time. A happy bonus is that I’m paying through my registered account, so the cost is going directly to my Australian debit card. I’m probably paying for this in some way with conversion fees or whatever but the upside is that we’re not having to use our precious cash reserves.

Our Uber driver from this morning didn’t speak any English, although he was very nice. As I normally do, I tried to explain where we were going just to make sure the driver knows exactly where to drop us off. This is effectively taken care of by the destination address that you provide at the point of booking the Uber but it sometimes helps to let them know what you want just in case they find it useful to know which side of the street to approach from or whatever. After a few failed attempts at communicating with this driver, it seemed he defaulted to something along the lines of I guess I’ll just deliver you to the address you’ve requested. Halfway there, he eventually got it. He dropped us off exactly where we needed to be and right at the queue of people waiting patiently in line to buy their tickets into the Parisian underworld.

We joined the end of the queue, which led around the square and out of view. At first sight, it didn’t seem that long but when Sandy went off to check that we were indeed in the right place or on the end of the right queue, she came back with unpleasant news. The queue didn’t just go around the corner and out of sight. It carried on going, and going, and going. It was estimated to be about four hours long. Fortunately, we had the foresight to bring our doctor’s letters and Victorian carer’s cards with us. Whilst I stood in line with the kids, Sandy disappeared with those things (the letters and cards – not the kids) to see what she could arrange. Five minutes later she called me and told me to bring the kids to the front of the queue. As luck would have it, the French are quite happy to accommodate people with special needs and we were allowed to go straight to the front of the queue. We didn’t even have to pay for our tickets either, although we did ask for two audio tour players for which I handed over €10.

Our tour through the Catacombs started with a spiral staircase, which seemed to go down forever. At the end of that, we wandered through a few tunnels, one of which must have been a good 200 metres long. Sandy and I visited this place before when we were testing our travelling kit on a two-day trip to Paris way back in 2002. Back then it was March and quite cold. The tunnels are a constant 14 degrees Celsius regardless of the temperature outside. They are just about wide enough to accommodate two people abreast. The purpose of the tunnels is complicated to explain, as they have been used for different things over the centuries. They came into being originally when limestone was mined from them. Eventually, they were used to house thousands – if not millions – of human remains. We eventually reached a section of the tunnels where some of these remains are stored. The walls are lined with neatly stacked bones from the ground to head-height. Joey was decidedly not happy. Initially, we didn’t pay much attention to him indicating he was afraid, as it’s the sort of thing he would typically do just for laughs. After a while, however, it became clear it was actually affecting him more than we thought it would. He was stimming and avoiding looking at the bones. He even held my hand over his face so that he couldn’t see them. I carried him on my back and we used the audio player as a distraction for him. Jennifer was a little apprehensive and quiet but clearly OK with it all generally.

We met a couple of guided tour groups as we meandered through the tunnels. It didn’t help matters for Joey when we were held up at one group who were glued to their guide’s story about a headless ghost and the walls being red with his blood. I was rubbing my hands over Joey’s ears at this point, hoping hit would mean he couldn’t hear the story. There are several exits from the labyrinth and we decided to take the first one that we came to, since Joey was clearly not comfortable. It was a gruelling climb back up another ridiculously long spiral staircase, which left Sandy and me both out of puff by the time we emerged back into Paris.

We milled around at the exit gift shop for a bit to allow the kids to explore. This also gave us enough of a chance to catch our breaths. Eventually, once we had all recovered, I ordered the next Uber to take us to the Eiffel Tower.

Our driver dropped us off at the base of the tower. Despite being a Sunday, there were huge queues of people all over the place. The square directly beneath the tower isn’t immediately accessible as we remembered it back in 2002. The entire square is cordoned off and you can only get in via the security checkpoint. Given the success we had with getting in at the Catacombs, we thought we’d try the same thing here. The only person we could find was a rather disinterested security guy wearing a hi-vis jacket. He was half-heatedly managing people in the various queues and answering questions from tourist coming at him from all directions. There were essentially two queues. One was for people who didn’t have a ticket yet and the other was for people that already had a ticket. The second queue also had a disabled sign so it looked like that was for people with special needs. After a few attempts, Sandy attracted the attention of the security guard. Despite him clearly needing to find another vocation and a more personally gratifying job, he grunted enough to indicate we should just slide in here at the point in the line where we just happened to be standing at the time. It was the line for people that already had a ticket and the one with the disabled sign. Fortunately, where we were at this point in the line it was no more than about 15 people away from the entry booth. That turned out to actually be a security checkpoint. Tickets are bought inside at another line. I surmised that they were trying to manage the numbers of people inside, since they were only allowing people to trickle through the security checkpoint really quite slowly. We ended up spending probably less than ten minutes getting in, although the heat of the day was already starting to take its toll.

Once inside, and beneath the awesome tower structure itself, we then had to figure out where to buy tickets and where to queue up to get into the tower itself. There are multiple options depending on whether you want the lift or stairs, the restaurant or observation tower, to go to the very top or one of the lower levels, etc. Sandy found an information booth with nobody waiting so she wandered over to ask, whilst the kids and I joined the end of what I thought would be the right queue. By the time we got to the front, which was only a few minutes later as it turned out, Sandy came back and confirmed we were actually already at the right place. There was a staff member at the front of this queue to whom I explained our situation. She acknowledged and asked us to stand aside for a few minutes, which we did. It turns out this was the queue for people that already had tickets for a specific time slot and she was allowing or denying entry to people based on the time slot printed on the tickets they were toting. Next to us was another queue of people winding their way through a different roped off queue. It was apparently the queue for people to buy tickets on the day. One really quite irate gentleman came over to ask why so many people from our queue were being allowed to the next point ahead of them all. It seems he had been standing there in that queue for over an hour and had had his fill of watching others get in ahead of him. The staff member did her best to explain and he eventually went back to his spot in his own queue, although clearly not happy with the situation.

We waited at the side there for 5-10 minutes, all the while under the piercing heat of the sun. Despite having avoided about four hours of queuing already at this point, Joey was exhibiting signs indicating he was getting close to his threshold. From past experience, we knew we were looking at the beginnings of an uncontrollable meltdown. I suspected we had a matter of minutes to play with. If it came to that, it would in all likelihood mean the end of our time at the tower today, as we would have had to withdraw. Somewhat out of desperation, I mentioned this to the woman at the front in as calm and polite a manner as I could. To her credit, she did seem to understand and said it would be just another minute. As it turned out, she was waiting for a shift change. Two new staff members came to relieve her. She spent a little while explaining something to them both and then one of them beckoned us and another small group to follow him, which we did. He led us directly to an empty ticket booth – much to the verbal disdain of that same irate gentleman, who was still looking on and wondering why yet more people were being allowed ahead of him. He walked out of his spot in his – still not really moving – queue and questioned why we should be allowed to buy tickets ahead of him. I just pointed to our escort and said we’re with him. I don’t think the man was particularly impressed but he at least went back to his spot in the queue again and we went on to buy our tickets.

At the ticket booth, I did ask for tickets to the very top but that wasn’t possible for two reasons. For one thing, we were evidently afforded access to the priority queue, which already meant we were ineligible for access to the very top. Also, they had closed access to the top temporarily. It wasn’t clear why but judging by the sheer volume of people here today, I surmised it was an attempt to control the numbers and to prevent too many people from being forced into a limited space. Either way, I was more than happy to accept what we were given and I paid for our tickets. The ticket salesman and I both acknowledged and agreed that it was probably for the best that we forego going to the very top today given the circumstances.

So, with our tickets in hand, the last remaining queue was to the elevator to take us up. This added another ten minutes to our overall attempt to get up the tower but we were now at least out of the sun and things were a bit more manageable with Joey. It did cost me another €10 note as a bribe and the promise of another app purchase on the iPad to keep him from exploding, but the fact is that we did what we had to do to manage the situation and I don’t feel ashamed of that.

At this point, I should really acknowledge that we’ve been treated absolutely brilliantly by every last official we’ve come into contact with here in France. Nobody has questioned us regarding the needs and difficulties we have to deal with in respect of managing Joey. As soon as we’ve pointed out we have someone with autism with us, we’ve been immediately treated favourably. It has truly been a blessing and testament to just how well the French deal with people with special needs. I feel truly honoured to have been treated as well as we have been all throughout. Well done France and the French – a top performance all around and a venerable example to the rest of the world.

Even though the numbers of tourists here today were being managed, it was still a tight fit in the double-decker elevator. We piled in and made our way to the first level, which was for the restaurant. About half our number got out here and we then went on to the second level, which was the top as far as this particular elevator was concerned. It’s an odd feeling, as the elevator follows the same curved contour of the tower leg, so it doesn’t move in a straight line as it climbs.

Once we were out, it was still very busy with lots of people but not so much that we couldn’t move. To help the kids acclimatise, we explored the inside first, which consisted of a few shops and things. With Joey still climbing down from his near meltdown and Jennifer still coming to terms with her anxiety over the height, it did take the better part of 10-15 minutes before we ventured out to take in the glorious views. This we eventually did and the views didn’t disappoint. Both kids became confortable with their surroundings and we took them around to explore. I even managed to get a really nice photo of Joey with the Paris skyline in the background, which was an unusual bonus.

There was a snack counter inside and the prices were actually not nearly as bad as I thought they would be. We sort of spoiled the kids for the duration today and allowed them pretty much what they wanted. After we’d all gouged on some rather unhealthy options, Sandy helped Jennifer make a brief video for her friends. Despite our elevation, we actually had good reception with our phones and were able to upload the video and plenty of other photos to Facebook.

Having exhausted all there was to do up at the third level, we queued up for the decent elevator. Since we ascended in the lower elevator section, we decided to descend in the upper section. As luck would have it, there really wasn’t that much of a queue to get down and we waited probably no more than about five minutes.

Back on terra firma, we milled around in the square beneath the tower for a bit taking photos and exploring the souvenir shops. The kids each picked out something from one of the shops before we found our way to the exit turnstiles.

Once outside, we had to negotiate all the Kenyan touts selling cheap Eiffel Tower trinkets. We ran this same gauntlet the other day when we were taking photos of the tower at a distance from the Trocadero. Actually, none of them were pushy at all and really quite easy to tolerate. We even spent a few Euro on a couple of bits from a couple of them. It was an easy and cheap way to treat the kids.

Having successfully fended of the toot-touting Kenyans by making a small purchase, I booked our next Uber. This time, I was determined to give the meat-lovers’ Hippopotamus restaurant chain a go and found the location of one that was part way from the tower to Malakoff. I plugged this into my Uber app and booked our ride. It was around €7 and the driver pulled up to where we were standing just a couple of minutes later.

The restaurant was good. The food wasn’t especially fabulous but it was more than sufficient for what we wanted at that point. Joey had done a tremendous job at holding it all together for this long but he was still teetering on the edge throughout the meal. This wasn’t helped by the waitress removing his plate after we had all eaten. There were still some uneaten vegetables that he had not touched and we just assumed he wasn’t going to. Whether he was or wasn’t, he claimed he was and was seemingly upset at missing the opportunity. Fortunately, we didn’t get a full-blown meltdown but he did hide under the table for a bit.

Having stuffed ourselves senseless – including an extremely rich desert – we hobbled out onto the pavement after paying something like €110 for the meal. I booked our final Uber of the day, who arrived just moments later to ferry us back to home base.

The kids settled behind their screens and I allowed Joey to buy the one app he’d been promised as a means to keep him under control earlier in the day. Now back to a more predictable scenario, he climbed down from the day and was, for the most part, himself again. For our part, Sandy and I took advantage of the short day and both went upstairs for a nap. We both re-surfaced about an hour and a half later and after a good shower, we were starting to feel human again, if not still very tired. Sandy is nursing a bit of a cold and a soar throat at the moment, which isn’t especially welcome right now, but we’re still holding it all together.

I spent the remaining part of the evening writing up this blog out on the balcony, soaking up the last of the sunshine. The weather is still perfect and it was nice to just sit there absorbing the Parisian atmosphere one more time.